Chronic Trauma vs. Acute Trauma in the Classroom

How different types of stresses affect learning environments

by Dr. Rod Berger

After the terrorist attack on September 11th 2001, Dr. Pamela Cantor was asked to co-author a study about the traumatic effect the attack had on New York City’s students. She did groundbreaking research across the Five Boroughs but had an eye-opening experience when a drawing from a young student in the Bronx showed what that day meant to him. The subject matter he drew was not what she or other researchers expected.

The drawing shows the twin towers smoking in the background, but in the foreground were two stick figure boys pointing guns at each other. It was an epiphany to Dr. Cantor and her team. They were studying the effects of acute trauma, and the signs of chronic trauma were everywhere they looked. Dr. Cantor explains, ”When you look at what that picture meant and you actually look at what showed up in the data, what we found was that these symptoms of stress associated with 9/11 were much more prevalent in our high-poverty communities and schools. And the reason for that was that there were clear and present dangers and risks that kids confronted every day in their communities.”

The results show that while some of the anxiety symptoms were set off or re-triggered by the 9/11 attacks, poverty and many other daily adversities are a stronger and more prevalent source of stress in children’s everyday lives. They are major factors in the types of issues kids bring into the classroom. Everyday stresses seriously impact the learning environment and prevent students from feeling both safe and secure. They feel alienated and alone, unable to learn while coping with multiple distractions outside the classroom.

But Dr. Cantor cautions that children’s brains are very malleable. She discusses the malleability and resilience side of the equation in overcoming stress factors and says there is a lot that adults can do both in the classroom and at home to help kids cope. “From enabling kids to know why they should feel safe, why they should feel protected, it’s important that parents and school staff need to be embedded in really strong relationships with their children,” she says.

She has learned that the strongest buffer we have against the effects of stress is the human relationship. Just as stress produces cortisol that courses through children’s systems, the experience of a connected and strong relationship actually releases another hormone that opposes cortisol. So the connection that kids have with their families, whether or not it's just one parent, is the key ingredient of a child’s healthy development.

“There is a lot that parents, that one parent, can do or just one teacher can do to make a child feel protected and safe in the school classroom to foster a healthy learning environment,” Dr. Cantor says. Just being present and providing a sense of security, continuity, and acceptance in the child’s life can make all the difference in the world.

About Dr. Pamela Cantor:

Pamela Cantor, M.D., is President and CEO of Turnaround for Children, a nonprofit organization that connects the dots between science, adversity and school performance to catalyze healthy student development and academic achievement. Dr. Cantor practiced child psychiatry for nearly two decades, specializing in trauma. She founded Turnaround after co-authoring a study on the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City schoolchildren. In high-poverty schools, she saw students traumatized by the circumstances in their lives, teachers struggling to meet the intense needs of their students and principals unable to build an environment that is physically and emotionally safe or supportive. Specifically, she recognized that the scientific research on stress and the developing brain that she had learned in medical school should be translated into practices to help children and schools challenged by with the effects of unrelenting adversity. Dr. Cantor started Turnaround to help schools understand the impact of adversity on learning and to put children on a healthier developmental trajectory so they can live the lives they choose.

Today, Dr. Cantor’s organization applies tools and strategies, grounded in science, to equip a diverse set of educators – from teachers and principals working in high-poverty schools, to district, charter and state leaders. In 2016, Turnaround published Building Blocks for Learning, a framework for comprehensive student development, grounded in science, in service of equity. The paper explores the roots of higher-order skills and mindsets, such as agency, perseverance and academic tenacity that all children need to flourish, and suggests a path to acquire them.

In 2017, Dr. Cantor co-authored “Building the Bridge Between Science and Practice: Essential Characteristics of a Translational Framework” in the journal Mind, Brain and Education.  She is also the co-author of two articles currently in press in Applied Developmental Science on how children learn and develop in context.

Prior to founding Turnaround, Dr. Cantor co-organized the National Summit for Children Exposed to Violence with then deputy attorney general Eric Holder, and served as co-director for the Eastern European Child Abuse and Child Mental Health Project, supported by George Soros.

Follow Dr. Pam Cantor on Twitter.

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